Consciousness  Reassessed

Karl Pribram


Many sophisticated essays and books have recently been written about the topic of "consciousness".   My own contributions date back some 25 years in an essay entitled  "Problems concerning the structure of consciousness" (Pribram 1976) and before that in delineating the difference between brain processes that are coordinate with awareness and those that are coordinate with habitual behavior (Pribram 1971).  I have been intrigued by what has been written since and take this occasion to reassess the major issues as I see them. 

The Primacy of Conscious Experience

For each of us all inquiry begins with our own conscious experience.  This experience develops as transactions occur between our genetic heritage and its biological, social, and cultural context.  Acknowledging this primacy resolves many of the issues that are currently so hotly debated.  Understanding develops as we explore these experiences.  Understanding at any moment is partial.  I experience the color red.  I note that people stop at red traffic lights.  Perhaps they have similar experience to mine:   I was present when the first red/green stop light was installed in Vienna, Austria at the junction of the Ring and Kaertner Strasse.  The news papers had heralded the event and throngs were there to witness it.  Police instructed everyone as to the meaning of "red" and "green".    

Later, together we learn about spectra and that the color red is produced by a specific bandwidth of that spectrum.  But I also find out  that this experience changes when the bandwidth appears in a different context (say, ultraviolet illumination).  Further, I learn that some people can’t distinguish between red and green and that this is due to some difference in the receptivity of the retina of the eye.  The primate retina has receptors tuned to three limited bandwidths that are combined into four opponent color processes.  Research has shown how further combinations of sensitivities in the brain can account for the myriads of color we can be conscious of. 

I have also heard that cultures differ in the number and sort of color the people in those cultures can share with others.  This is a good example of how my experiences become meshed with those of others.  Although some cultures do not report the experience of the variety of colors that we report in ours, they can be trained to do so.  The question arises as to whether these people experience the variety prior to training.  I have a personal story that sheds some light on this issue:  When two colleagues and I began to study the anatomical composition of the thalamus of the brain, all we could make out was an undifferentiated set of stained cells.  One of us complained that the thalamus looked like a bunch of polka dots.  After months of peering down a microscope and comparing what we were looking at with atlases and published papers, the differentiation of various nuclear structures within the thalamus became obvious to us.  Continued study and experimentation over several years enabled us to publish substantive contributions to the organization of thalamocortical organization.  James and Eleanor (Jackie) Gibson in a ground breaking paper (1955) described their experiments that showed that perceptual learning consisted of progressive differentiation, not enrichment through association.  My inference is that the cultures that do not communicate a rich diversity of colors have the capacity to do so but do not actually experience that richness until they learn to do so. 

We have found out a lot about our conscious experience of colors.  We have found out some physics, some biology, some brain science, some social and cultural facts about our conscious experience.  I believe that by taking into account all of the contextual constraints, the fields, forces, valences and the like we can say that we have some "understanding" of (standing under) our conscious experience of the color red.  As to the conscious experience itself it is the starting point, not the end of understanding. 

The Privacy of Conscious Experience

Almost everyone agrees that one of the most intractable problems in studying consciousness is that my consciousness (now often referred to as 1st person consciousness) is for all practical purposes inaccessible to others (now often referred to as 3rd person consciousness).  This issue has been called one of the really "hard" philosophical problems.  I have come to the conclusion that the problem is so difficult  because the question asked and therefore the answer is WRONG.  In fact when we become conscious of what is happening we are much better able to communicate the experience to others and to ourselves.  The communication can be verbal or non-verbal.  Take the reflex of withdrawing one’s hand from a hot flame or pot (DesCarte’s example).  It is possible by repeating the behavior to condition the response so that withdrawal would take place before the pot is touched (a fractional anticipatory reaction in stimulus-response psychological theory).   But by becoming aware of the withdrawal and the hotness of the pot, not only can we abbreviate the process of not touching hot pots but, in addition, we can transmit what we know to our children and roommate (who might be an absent minded professor).  Consciousness is what it says: "con-sciousness", to know together. 

My claim is that the problem of knowing what goes on within another’s conscious experience is no different in kind from knowing the happenings within an atom or those in the stellar universe.  We observe, develop tools for more acute observation and we communicate the results with others to receive consensual validation that we are on the right track.  What is really private are the unconscious processes to which we have such limited access.  Freud’s contribution was to attempt a technique by which we could access these unconscious processes and bring them into our conscious experience so that we could share them and do something about them.   

Consciousness as Relational

 From the above it becomes clear that consciousness is relational.  Just as gravity is a field that relates various material bodies, so conscious experience relates various sentient bodies.  One can no more hope to find consciousness by digging into the brain than one can find gravity by digging into the earth’s center.  One can, however, find out how the brain helps organize our conscious experience just as one can dig into the earth to find out how its composition influences its gravitational force.  

Coordinate Structures Relating Brain to Conscious Experience

Innumerable observations and experiments have shown that the organization of conscious experience is coordinate with the organization of brain processes. 

However, those very brain processes are organized by biological and social processes that are, in turn, organized by brain processes.  Thus, not only do social and cultural processes form the context within which biology develops, but  biological processes form the context within which social and cultural process become developed.  Human brains are critical to the invention of bicycles, the writing of novels and the construction of economic systems.  The existential approaches to conscious experience taken by Brentano, Husserl, Merlo-Ponti and Heidigger acknowledges these entanglements but do not detail the structural nitti-gritty (especially what the brain and behavioral sciences currently have to offer) that puts it all together. 

This approach to the Matter/Mind relationship encompasses both the Cartesian and the Heisenbergian "cuts" that have been suggested as fundamental to our understanding of scientific exploration.  DesCartes argued for a basic difference in kind between conscious processes such as thinking and the material substance composing the body and its brain.  This difference can currently be stated in terms, on the one hand, 1) of a relation between the momentum and location of a unit of matter and, on the other hand, 2) the relation between energy and entropy (or neg-entropy measured as an amount of information).  

Heisenberg noted the limits of simultaneous measurement of both momentum and location, its indeterminacy. 

Gabor found a similar limit to simultaneous measurement of frequency (energy) and time (entropy).  These indeterminacies are portrayed by the Fourier relationship between energy and momentum vs. time and space.  In the view presented here, all of these relationships and indeterminacies come about as a consequence of our focus on certain "band-widths" of  scientific measurement. They are a synopsis of certain aspects of our experience as we observe the world we live in.  They are not indicative of two kinds of "substance" that make up this world.  In fact, at both the quantum and the relativity levels, matter turns out to become dematerialized as a form of concentrated energy:  a relationship perhaps more in league with measures of entropy and information as referred to above.  

A story illuminates this argument.  Once, Eugene Wigner remarked that in quantum physics we no longer have observables, (invariants) but only observations. Tongue in cheek I asked whether that meant that quantum physics is really psychology, expecting a gruff reply to my sassiness.  Instead, Wigner beamed a happy smile of understanding and replied, yes, yes, that’s exactly correct.  If indeed one wants to take the reductive path, one ends up with psychology, not particles.  In fact, it is mathematics, a psychological process that is the language of physics.         

Conscious experience itself is far from being all-of-a-piece.  There are levels of awareness:  I can drive my automobile avoiding other cars, stopping at red traffic (but not other) red lights while engrossed in a conversation with a passenger.  There is my experience of an objective "me", especially when part of my body (or brain) is tampered with.  There is also my experience of an "I", a narrative self composed of experienced episodes of events.  There are experiences of feelings that monitor the episodes; as well as experiences of perceiving the aboutness of the objective world the "me" lives in.  There are experiences of attention, of intention, and of thinking (see Pribram 1999, Brain and the Composition of Conscious Experience). 

The structure of all of these modes of conscious experiencing has been shown to be coordinate with the structure of the relationships among brain systems and modules.  By coordinate I mean that there are transfer functions that readily allow descriptions of one to be transformed into the description of the other.  These coordinate structures have made up the chapters and lectures of my books and essays (for example 1971 Languages of the Brain;1991 Brain and Perception). 

Identity, Multiple Aspects and Multiple Instantiations

Many of the problems that fuel the current discourse on consciousness are due to the acceptance of a radical reductionist stance.  Take Francis Crick’s view that if we knew what every neuron is doing we would dispense with Folk Psychology.  But what every neuron is doing is a complex process composed of synapto-dendritic fine fibered transactions, circuits, modules composed of circuits and systems composed of modules.  Our experience is also complex composed of an objective me and a narrative I, of perceptions and feelings, of attention, intention and thought.   These levels of organization, scales of processing must be taken into account if we are to relate the organization of our experience to the organization of the brain. 

Insights can be gained by taking computers and computer programs as metaphors.  The structure of machine language and that of the basic hardware operations is identical.  Octal and hexadecimal programs provide a new level of organization that allows some minimal parallel processing to occur.  A series of hierarchically composed program languages lead to the capability for the input and output devices to address the computer in a natural language such as English.  At the lower level of the hierarchy it is often useful to implement the software in hardware and vice versa.  But for higher order programs this is infeasible.  At the level of natural language programming a dualist philosopher might well point out that the material computer and the mental program partake of totally different but somehow interacting worlds.  In fact, in many instances, the hardware can be patented, while copyrights protect the program. 

With respect to brain processes and psychological processes, a fundamental identity is established by a Gabor-like elementary function.  Gabor, a mathematician, developed his unit to discern the maximum compressibility of a telephone message without losing intelligibility.  Beyond this maximum an indeterminacy holds, producing a minimum beyond which the meaning of the message becomes uncertain.  Gabor then related his measure of uncertainty to Shannon’s measure of the reduction of uncertainty, the BIT (binary digit) the basic unit of computer information processing.  Gabor used the same mathematics (a Hilbert phase space) as did Heisenberg to describe the microstructure of matter, so Gabor named his unit a quantum of information.   

During the 1970s and thereafter experiments in many laboratories including mine showed that the Gabor function provides a good description of the structure of dendritic fields in the primary visual cortex.  Thus the same mathematical description serves both an elementary psychological process, communication, and an elementary material process in the brain.  I am writing another paper at this time to discuss in detail the implication of this identity for our understanding  of mind/brain processes.

Not only radical materialists but Identity Theorists claim that neurological and psychological processes partake of sameness.  I have stated something like this in the preceding section but limited it to the structure not the content of the processes.  The question for identity theory is "how did the identity come about?"  One answer is that brain processes and psychological processes are different aspects of some more basic process.  Linguistic philosophers termed this the difference between brain talk and mind talk.  The problem then arises as to what is that untalked about basic process?  My answer (see 1986, Pribram: The Cognitive Revolution and Mind/Brain Issues) has been that the basic process deals with energy and it’s organization as neg-entropy or informational structure (which includes the structure of redundancy, that is, complexity). 

Equally important in my view is that brain organization and psychological organization are not merely multiple aspects, multiple perspectives on some underlying order.  Rather, the multiplicity concerns actual instantiations, embodiments, of that order. (see for example 1997, Pribram: What is Mind that the Brain May Order it).    

How Can Consciousness Change Brain Processes?

In so many ways.  If, as I indicated above, conscious experience is not an emergent just of brain processes but of the complex of relations among brain systems, social systems and culture, the question becomes meaningless.  The brain systems have memory, the social systems have memory, culture is memory.  Levi-Strauss pointed out that a reductionist approach, in which causal relations are sought, works for simple systems but that for complex systems a structural analysis is needed.  Consciousness is complex.  The search for efficient causes is misplaced.  Formal causes, and, on occasion, even final causes are more appropriate.  As I experience a happening and remember it, my brain’s memory systems are altered and can be altered in such a way that my future behavior will be affected.  In psychology, this process is called operant conditioning and as Fred Skinner (1989), a radical behaviorist, stated: "there are two unavoidable gaps in the behavioral account; one between a stimulating event and the organism’s response; the other between the consequences of an act and its effect on future behavior.  Only brain science can fill these gaps.  In doing so it completes the account; it does not give a different account of the same thing." 

The consequences of my actions change my brain even when those actions are virtual as when one brain system addresses another during attention, intention and thinking.  And through my overt actions such as writing and dramatizing, my culture becomes changed by way of a self-organizing process: take for example the Velvet Revolution in Central Europe toward the end of the 20th century.  The pen can be mightier than the sword.

Free Will

 Taking the holistic approach in the study of consciousness resolves not only such issues as "downward" causation as handled in the previous section but also such issues as free will.  A scientific reading would state that one’s actions are constrained in a variety of ways.  The measure of the degrees of freedom that remain is experienced as free will.  Voluntary behavior rests on a parallel feed-forward process in which a corollary signal presets the execution of the process.  Much has been made of the fact that brain processes can be recorded prior to the execution of a voluntary act and that brain stimulation does not result in a conscious experience as quickly as receptor stimulation.  But as in the first section of this essay, the answers given to the question about the relation of the brain process to conscious experience are just wrong because the question is wrongly posed.  Thank goodness my behavior is not burdened with continuous conscious experience appropriate to the behavior.  Even my spontaneous lectures in a classroom run off at a rate that would be impeded by any awareness of how I am saying something.  Awareness comes from watching the faces of the students – I must slow down, ask for questions etc.

Or the conscious experience is totally outside the contents of the lecture as when a pretty student in a miniskirt crosses her legs.  Thank goodness for the enrichment given me by conscious experience.  What I do with that richness is constrained by the society I live in, by the particular students in the class, by the season of the year, by the level of hormones circulating in all of us, by the attractiveness of our bodies, by the amount of work I’ve put in organizing the lecture and what my memory has stored. Thus, my classroom experiences are rarely the same.  The constraints have "fuzzy" boundaries and many of them are not operating all the time.   Degrees of freedom remain and provide variety to the experience. 

In more technical terms, contrary to Einstein’s view, God does play dice with the universe and with you and me.  The six sided die even has numbers on it – it is highly constrained, determined.  But throw the dice (two of them) and you have 12  factorial possibilities as to how they will land.  Only the initial conditions are determined, the throw, the dynamics, for all practical purposes remains remarkably free.  And conscious experience, because it comes late allows future "throws" to be manipulated on the basis of the experience – else how would casinos stay in business? 

In short, freedom comes from action, from doing something with the constrained anatomy of the situation.  As described by non-linear dynamics, the future is dependent on initial conditions and the constraints operating at any moment.  These determine the number of attractors (degrees of freedom) operating to determine the trajectories of the process.  Equally important is the noise in the system so that the action is not constrained only by the first attractor (the first well in the landscape) that is encountered.  In experiments my colleagues and I performed to study classical conditioning in amygdalectomized monkies, the failure of the animals to become conditioned was shown to depend on the reduction (when compared with the behavior of normal control subjects) of variability (noise) in their initial responses to the unconditioned stimulus. 

Pervading Consciousness

According to one way of defining conscious experience is that it partakes of a larger consciousness, tunes into that more encompassing knowing together.  Taking the stance that I have done in this essay, there is only a step from the existential conscious experience of living in this physical, biological, social and cultural world to defining the cultural world as spiritual.  By spiritual I mean that our conscious experience is attracted to patterns (informational structures?) beyond our immediate daily concerns.  Such patterns may constitute quantum physics, organic chemistry, history, interpersonal interactions, or religious beliefs.  These interests all comprise stories and the same part of the brain that is involved in creating the narrative "I" is involved in partaking in these other narrative constructions (see 1998, Pribram and Bradley:  The Brain, the Me and the I). 

The search for understanding is indeed a spiritual quest whether esoteric, artistic  or scientific.  Understanding consciousness as developed in this essay ought to go a long way toward unifying these quests.